Kate Bolick has set the chattering class — not to mention the bar scene — abuzz with her cover story for The Atlantic, “All the Single Ladies.” Because she passed up marriage in her late 20s and has now concluded that at 39 the possibility has passed her by completely, she declares the end of marriage as her generation’s contribution to history. Have all single 30-somethings come to a similar conclusion? Not quite, as you might expect. For further insight, National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez discusses the issue with Jennifer A. Marshall, director of domestic-policy studies at the Heritage Foundation and author of the book Now and Not Yet: Making Sense of Single Life in the 21st Century.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Is this month’s Atlantic story one woman trying to justify why she broke up with a boyfriend of three years for no good reason (as she tells it)?
JENNIFER A. MARSHALL: Not trying “to justify” but perhaps trying to figure out, in retrospect, why she did it. She confesses to having been bewildered by her decision at the time. There were some pretty strong winds at our backs for those of us growing up in the you-go-girl generation (i.e., those born after 1970), propelling us along a seemingly endless path of opportunity. So if “something was missing,” as she says, why not keep looking for it? As in any generation, cultural dynamics shaped our motivations in ways we couldn’t readily articulate, and this article strikes me as an effort to sort those out.
LOPEZ: At 39, is it “certainly” the case, as Bolick writes, that “falling in love and getting married may be less a matter of choice than a stroke of wild great luck”?
MARSHALL: Never-married 30-somethings probably are not in a good position to use the word “certainly” in observations about how marriage will happen.
LOPEZ: “Biological parenthood in a nuclear family need not be the be-all and end-all of womanhood — and in fact it increasingly is not.” Did anyone ever say it was?
MARSHALL: That’s a feminist parody of the traditionalist position that rightly esteems marriage and motherhood. The feminist–traditionalist debate has played out popularly in a way that leaves many women still wondering how to ground their sense of identity and purpose in the midst of all the shifting terrain in the last generation. I think we need to address some questions that are more foundational than those we typically hear.
LOPEZ: “But somewhere along the way, I decided to not let my biology dictate my romantic life. If I find someone I really like being with, and if he and I decide we want a child together, and it’s too late for me to conceive naturally, I’ll consider whatever technological aid is currently available, or adopt (and if he’s not open to adoption, he’s not the kind of man I want to be with).” Is there something selfish about that? There is a reality to biology. You may be able to adopt at a later age, but is that fair to the child, who is not going to have you around as long?
MARSHALL: The problem here is taking a fundamentally relational dimension of life — romance — and approaching it individualistically. The more we focus solely on our own goals, our own timelines, the less likely we are to have the other-focused outlook that makes relationships succeed. And as the Atlantic story points out, it’s that relational piece that is so elusive for women of the you-go-girl generation, the satisfaction we struggle to find. These romantic and relational decisions have consequences beyond ourselves, often particularly for children. Part of empowering women today ought to be instilling a greater sense of stewardship for those consequences beyond ourselves.